Build or burn?


The nice thing about being a manager is that people will generally do what you want: you have power.  And, it turns out, all that power is good for you.

Management is hard but it is also fun.  Being ‘in charge’ – head honcho – is the compensation for all the hassle.  Being in a powerful position gives the power-holder what everyone wants: control over their own lives.  It used to be believed that the person that suffers most from stress is the high-powered executive but in fact it is the opposite.  It’s people in low-power positions that suffer most from stress.  People in low-power positions not only feel they have no control over their lives but actually live shorter lives than higher status.  If you want to have control over your life, live longer and be happier, seek power.

Writing during the English civil war, Thomas Hobbes arrived at a brilliant insight into power.  So great is our fear of disorder and aversion to chaos that we would rather give up our freedom and live under the authority of a tyrant than live in a world where no one is in charge.

If that sounds authoritarian, consider the experiments in authority and obedience carried out in the 1960s where test subjects (the teachers) administered electric shocks (or so they thought) to other test subjects (the learners) sitting in the next room if they made a mistake in a memory test.  A staggering two-thirds of test subjects continued applying shocks all the way up to 450v, even after the screaming had stopped after 315v.  Why?  Because someone in authority asked them to.

People in groups are generally content to yield to a dominant individual because that person often displays organisational abilities or demonstrates other skills that can help solve the group’s problems.  If the dominant person seems to know what they are doing and is willing to shoulder the responsibility, most people are happy to let them get on with it.  After all, dominant people invest a great deal of time and effort to prevail over and influence others.  They often have a clear sense of purpose and the commitment to see it through.

The normal human desire for stability and propensity to obey authority means that a lot of power is naturally vested in the position of a manager.  You can get a lot done if you have a lot of power.  You don’t have to ask for permission and there are fewer barriers in your way.

How can you become more powerful?  Delay gratification.

Famously, a study gave young kids a marshmallow but told them that the researcher was going to leave the room and, if the child could wait without eating the marshmallow, then he or she could have a second marshmallow.  The length of time each child waited before succumbing to temptation correlated well with their later academic success and physical and mental health when the study participants were followed up as adults.

Self-regulation then is the thing to work on if you want to increase your power: patience, impulse-control and willpower.  Careful and thoughtful work early in your career, while hedonists are out enjoying themselves, will pay dividends later in your career.

The good news from research into power keeps coming.  The mere fact of holding power seems to convey cognitive benefits such as speed of decision-making and maturity.

Is there a downside to power?  It does intensify the power-holder’s egocentric biases, making them think what’s important to them is also important to others, tempting them to disregard secondary priorities.  It magnifies the power-holder’s self-expression, making it hard for them to hear the voices of others.   It also means a manager can never be ‘friends’ with their subordinates.  Friendship requires equality and there’s too much of a power imbalance in the relationship between a manager and their employees.  The manager has too much control over the employee’s life for there ever to be genuine friendship.

There is also a serious downside if an individual achieves power without having a clear sense of what they are going to do with it.  Think Gordon Brown or Bob Dole.  Unfortunately, you do find managers who are in position but not in power.

Power is a good thing to have and to want.  Seek it out, but only if you know what to do with it.

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